By Lauren Lavelle
Marshall Onofrio, dean of the Westminster College of the Arts, canceled a meeting he scheduled for Westminster Choir College (WCC) faculty on April 2 after he was informed that Jeff Halpern, Rider’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) chief contract administrator and grievance officer, wanted to attend.
But choir college faculty decided to meet anyway, without their dean, as the campus continues to be roiled by Rider administrators’ plan to sell it to a Chinese company for $40 million.
According to an email from Onofrio to WCC faculty, the meeting was called to discuss unspecified “events related to Westminster” and was closed to those outside of WCC faculty.
“My purpose in inviting [WCC faculty] was to initiate a dialogue that truly is different from those that have occurred in the past,” Onofrio said in the email. “To that end, I indicated to the senior administration that I did not want anyone participating except WCC faculty and selected WCC administrators. They agreed, and I proceeded with inviting only you, the faculty.”
Onofrio cited the National Labor Relations Act in defense of his decision to close the meeting and said other members of the AAUP from WCC were invited to attend.
“Per university policy, I have the right to call a closed meeting and there is clear guidance under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) about the conditions under which union leadership has the right to attend,” the email said. “This meeting does not fall under those conditions. Finally, there are elected AAUP representatives on the WCC faculty who have been invited.”
Onofrio concluded the email with a final statement about the intended dialogue of the meeting and ultimately cancelled it.
“Most importantly, to change who is in the room will change the dialogue,” the email said. “I know this because you – the faculty – have said so over the years. This will not be the meeting I intended, at which I hoped that we truly would talk freely with one another. Therefore, rather than ask you to attend a meeting that is interrupted by uninvited individuals, I am postponing this meeting until the matter is resolved.”
Joel Phillips, a composition and music theory professor and the AAUP’s assistant grievance officer, called Onofrio’s reasoning for barring Halpern from the meeting “nonsense.”
“It makes no sense to me,” Phillips said. “What [Onofrio] fails to mention is that several bargaining-unit faculty reached out to Halpern to attend that meeting as their union representative. Halpern did not invite himself. The NLRA requires him to respond to such requests of those he represents.”
Phillips emphasized the importance of Halpern’s presence at the meeting.
“Halpern is elected by the entire full and part-time faculty of Rider to serve as the AAUP Contract Administrator [and is] the person who has the sole authority to interpret the Agreement on their behalf,” Phillips said. “Further, based on every event regarding these circumstances to date, those members have every reason to presume that anything Onofrio might say could potentially impact the terms and conditions of their employment. Unlike the Dean, who wishes to exclude members of our university community from such discussions, we faculty welcome them.”
Despite the cancelation, Phillips and other WCC faculty decided to have the meeting anyway and sent Elem Eley, a professor of voice, to inform Onofrio of their intentions. According to Phillips, Onofrio refused to attend the meeting if Halpern was present.
“WCC faculty sent [Eley] to invite the dean [to the meeting,]” Phillips said. “He asked whether or not Halpern would be there and, when the answer was yes, he refused to come.”
Eley said he was suspicious of Onofrio’s response.
“The meeting was cancelled because our Dean felt that he had a better chance of ‘calming us down’ without the presence of our chief AAUP grievance officer,” Eley said. “My suspicion is that there would have been no new, hard information shared with us, that it would have been an attempt to placate the faculty.”
In a statement to The Rider News, Onofrio reiterated his reasoning for canceling the meeting and further emphasized his refusal to attend the meeting because of Halpern’s presence.
“Most importantly, to change who is in the room will change the nature of the dialogue, resulting in a meeting that is not what I hoped to host,” Onofrio said. “Therefore, rather than proceed with a meeting that included uninvited individuals, I wrote to the faculty, indicating that I am postponing this meeting until the matter is resolved. Apparently, the faculty decided independently to hold the meeting as scheduled. A member of the faculty invited me to attend, and I declined since the uninvited would be present.”
While it is not clear what the original meeting was called to discuss, Phillips said the independent meeting addressed the recent Attorney General report regarding the sale of WCC and Rider’s lack of compliance in records requests.
“We concluded the deal can never go through because of what the acting Attorney General already concluded,” Phillips said.
Eley echoed Phillips’ statement.
“The utter lack of transparency, combined with recent statements from the Attorney General and details of the recently-obtained agreement, leave us no real alternative other than suspicion and mistrust,” he said. “Trust between those who struck the deal and the University as a whole, that trust is broken. Further, the reputation of Rider has been and will be seriously damaged by these misdeeds.”
Rider faces a pair of lawsuits opposing the sale of WCC, and the ongoing review of the proposed transaction by the state Attorney General’s office. A court date has been scheduled for April 15.